For centuries, pilgrims have come to the Our Lady of Charity shrine with wishes for a cure for ill health, a better economy, and improved relationships. Now Cubans inside and outside the island also have a long list of wishes for Pope Benedict XVI when he visits Cuba to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of a statue of the Virgin.
Benedict, who begins a two-country visit in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato on Friday, will arrive in Santiago de Cuba on March 26 to mark the the Jubilee year of the discovery in the Bay of Nipe. The statue of the Virgin, who became Cubas patron saint in 1916, is now ensconced in a shrine in El Cobre, a mining town about 12 miles northwest of Santiago.
The pope has said he comes to Mexico and Cuba as a pilgrim of charity to proclaim the word of Christ and the conviction that this is a precious time to evangelize.
But the list of topics those in South Florida hope he will address is long, ranging from calling for Catholic education in Cuba to meeting with dissidents on the island to requesting freedom for jailed American subcontractor Alan Gross.
There were results from the 1998 visit by Pope John Paul II to Cuba, and many would like to see some this time around also: After John Pauls visit, a new convent and seminary opened, the government permitted occasional Masses and addresses to be broadcast on state-controlled media and Christmas, long a regular day of work, became a national holiday.
Theres a long way to go, however, and I think Benedict will address that, said Msgr. Franklyn M. Casale, the president of St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. The return of Catholic schools would be a great breakthrough.
Former President Fidel Castro received a Jesuit education, but after the 1959 revolution, religious schools across the island were closed. St. Thomas, which traces its roots to the Universidad de Santo Tomás de Villanueva, founded in 1946 by Augustinian friars, was one of them.
After the friars were expelled in 1961, they came to South Florida and founded Biscayne College, which later became St. Thomas.
More than 50 years after that, Casale took a group of 10 students and three faculty members to Cuba on a weekend pilgrimage and what he called a learning experience earlier this month.
Casale said he expects the 84-year-old pope to talk about religious freedom, education and human rights. These are all very regular themes in his pontificate, said Casale.
Human rights may be a regular theme, but an item high on many exiles wish list a meeting with island dissidents is more controversial. Dissident and human rights groups have sent letters and petitions to the pope asking for such a meeting.
In Miami, a group of young professionals has launched One Cuba, a Facebook campaign urging the pope to meet with human rights activists during his trip and asking people to sign their petition.
Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also appealed to the pope to show his support for the Cuban people by meeting with peaceful dissident groups, including those practicing their faith while bringing attention to human rights violations, the Ladies in White and Jorge García Pérez (Antúnez) in a recent written statement.
The Ladies in White are relatives of political prisoners who dress in white during weekly marches. García, a human rights activist known as Antúnez, was jailed for 17 years. Pope John Paul II asked for his release during his 1998 trip, but he was held until 2007.